22hrs in a mask

22hrs in a mask

Written by Zein (Zee) Al-Maha Owens (she/her)

Photo by Daniel Norris on Unsplash

On the 9th of March 2020, I received an unconditional offer for a PhD in Media and Cultural Policy from the University of Glasgow. However, in the coming weeks, countries were brought to their feet, we all donned face masks, and came to grieve that loss of human contact. Nevertheless, I was going to get to Scotland. I’d swim there, if I had to – three suitcases, and my cane for a paddle. Being visually impaired – with no depth perception and a lack of direction skills – I opted for the flight. A flight that would take me 7,800 km away from home, in the midst of a pandemic.

While I was planning my journey to Glasgow, Jordan was going through a national lockdown. It started mid-March and ended sometime in the summer. Schools were suspended, offices shut, borders closed. One person from each household was allowed to walk for essential shopping, otherwise we stayed home. Our lives shifted to an indoor dimension, where the work-life balance was defined by Zoom meetings by day and bingeing TV series by night. My days were punctuated only by routinely nudging my Persian cat off my keyboard.  

As the days turned to months, the government eased its restrictions. Our new restrictions came with a curfew from 10 pm till 6 am, marked by a blitz-esque siren signalling our collective return home. Strict laws were enforced: wearing masks was made mandatory and people who did not wear them would be fined. Masked in the summer heat, I’d lose my sense of direction and my glasses would constantly fog up. 

Masks are protective and they keep us safe, but they’re not accessible, and for people with visual impairments, facial coverings only add another hurdle. I hoped things would be better in Glasgow. Thankfully, by September the government had opened the airport again – subject to travellers following various precautions. All I needed was a negative Covid test. 

Leaving my family, not knowing when I would see them next, was a predictably bittersweet moment leaving my family. My cousin was to travel with me: my visual impairment meant I could not travel on my own. Together, we went through check in, security, boarding – all with a face mask and glasses. 

Due to a delay, I had more thinking time than anticipated. The safety of myself and my cousin was at risk – and for what? I closed my eyes and asked God for a sign, any sign that I was doing the right thing. It came through the intercom: ‘Attention passengers, Emirates flight 904 to Dubai is now boarding’. Priority-boarded, myself and my cousin filed onto the plane. 

The most exciting part of flying was the take-off, or the feeling of wheels on the ground, signalling we had landed safely. These are the only bits I can remember, as I slept through the flight. On landing in Dubai, a seven-hour layover awaited us in the lounge. A security point – to check whether we had any symptoms – stopped us just beforehand. I had my negative test pass ready – but it went unasked for, and so stayed, untouched, in my pocket. 

It should have been one of the busiest airports in the Middle East. But stores were shut, restaurants deserted. The air held that hospital stench – strong bleach and airport. It was cold – freezing, in fact. The masks helped keep us warm. Without them, our breath would’ve been visible. 

My cousin slept deeply, at a table in the lounge. I filled up on caffeine, intending to sleep on the flight to Glasgow the next day. I spent those slow hours speaking with friends I had met digitally over the summer. Some had already made it to Glasgow. I would see them soon. 

At 6 am the sun rose. Our flight would leave in one hour. We sat, in the early sunlight, sipping our morning coffees. I savoured it: Glasgow would welcome us with rain, wind, and grey skies. As we walked to our gate, reality began to sink in. I was so close. We boarded the airlines, the flight attendants made sure our masks were on and that we were acquainted with the safety procedures. 

The flight attendant went through the safety procedures with me step by step, making sure I knew where the life jacket was (under my seat), where the oxygen mask would drop from (above my head), and where the safety brochure could be found (in the pocket of the seat in front of me). In case of an emergency lights would show where the nearest exit was. This was all communicated through touch and sound. It is these little details that make my flying experience much more accessible and comfortable. Sometimes I even forget that I am afraid of flying. 

I slept through the flight – all seven hours of it. After we had landed, everyone rushed to border control and I began to actually grasp my surroundings – I had made it to Glasgow. A fourteen-day quarantine was all that was left. After it had ended, I began enjoying daily walks around the West End – the Botanical Gardens, Kelvingrove Park, the university’s campus, and soon, I started my PhD. The journey was worth it after all – it was worth all of this. 

Still, settling in Glasgow during a pandemic, hasn’t been all that simple. Many people with disabilities find wearing a mask hard: it hinders their movements and can make communicating with others difficult. I still find it difficult to wear a mask and walk in a straight line. With a mask on, stuffed beneath my glasses, it’s hard for me to see whether people are two metres away from me. Byer’s road with a mask and no peripheral vision feels like a game of Mario Kart. 

The Glasgow I’m living in is not the one I had envisioned: it has sanitising stations and socially distanced supermarket queues, but I am making the most of my blessings – and life right now is one of them. 

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